Latest Rail News

11.06.15

Drones could be used to boost mobile network coverage on trains

The government is exploring plans for unmanned drones to follow trains around the country as part of a consultation on improving network coverage on-board.

Drones are one of extreme potential solutions to the problem of poor coverage. Other options include tethered balloons to boost coverage, high-gain external antennae and mobile network operators using Network Rail infrastructure – such as masts, facilities and telecommunications – to provide continuous coverage.

Ministers are consulting on these options and more to find the best way to end dropped calls and intermittent internet access during rail travel.

“Dropped calls and intermittent access to the internet are frustrations felt by many rail passengers. Mobile communications are so important to passengers that free Wi-Fi now appears in the top ten priorities for improvement according to a major survey last year,” the rail minister Claire Perry and culture minister Ed Vaizey wrote.

“This call for evidence is instrumental to ensure we get the best possible deal for passengers and give them the mobile connectivity they want and need, both now and in the years to come.”

There are ten potential solutions included in the consultation, four on-train options and six off-train.

On-train technical options

  1. On train wi-fi - roof-top antennas used to aggregate mobile network data signals and rebroadcast as a Wi-Fi signal within the train, in line with the Government policy announced in February 2015.
  2. Digital on-board repeaters (D-OBR) - amplify external mobile signals within the carriages, reducing the signal attenuation effects of walls and windows.
  3. Femto cells - these act as mobile base stations providing connectivity within carriages and requiring connectivity with the mobile operators’ networks.
  4. ‘Passive repeaters’ - high-gain external antennae on all train carriages with low loss coupling to internal antennae, potentially reducing the effect of cuttings due to the height of the antenna and eliminating the attenuation effects of the carriage.

Off-train technical options

  1. Every mobile network operator makes improvements to their offrail infrastructure to improve coverage along the rail network. This would target not-spots to provide continuous coverage.
  2. Every mobile network operator utilises Network Rail assets (including masts, facilities and telecommunications) to provide continuous coverage.
  3. One or more mobile network operators provide mobile coverage across the rail route.
  4. Instead of using mobile network operators, build a private network along the rail route with an alternative service provider.
  5. Instead of using mobile network operators, use train-to-satellite mobile broadband connectivity to deliver both voice and data services.
  6. Utilise future unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or tethered balloons to deliver targeted connectivity to trains or some other innovative option.

The consultation runs until 13 July and can be viewed here.

RTM recently interviewed Craig Ellis, Network Rail Telecoms head of technology & engineering, about the FTNx network, which comes with its own challenges. That interview is here.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

Comments

Captain_Deltic   12/06/2015 at 12:19

Lobe the idea of drones following trains or balloons tethered to trains. What would really happen would be long endurance UAV circling at high altitude acting as repeaters - already proposed in USA. Balloons could be alongside the track. More likely is using high altitude powered unmanned airships to house repeaters - also considered in USA. But more fun to see a Pendolino dragging a balloon along at 125 mile/h.

Peter Gordon   12/06/2015 at 13:29

Presumably you would need leaky feeder cables in every tunnel if internet reception is to remain uninterrupted. Would the towed balloon survive entering a tunnel? Actually I like it when someone is blathering away on a mobile phone and we enter a tunnel.

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